Arizona football needs a savior. But Jordan McCloud, the Wildcats’ new starting quarterback, knows he can’t try to play like one.
That’s what got him in trouble in his first UA start, on Sept. 25 at Oregon. McCloud helped Arizona move the ball; the Wildcats pieced together a season-high six drives of 10 or more plays, including three that spanned 70 or more yards.
But McCloud also threw five interceptions, including two in the red zone and one that was returned for a touchdown. Arizona trailed by only five points in the fourth quarter but ended up losing 41-19 to then-No. 3 Oregon. It was the Wildcats’ 16th consecutive defeat.
McCloud has had plenty of time to analyze his performance. He knows what he needs to do — and needs to avoid — to improve in start No. 2 Saturday against UCLA.
“I can’t make the mistakes that I did,” McCloud said Tuesday. “I took us out of some red-zone opportunities. We have to get points, whether it’s a field goal or a touchdown.
“You take just two of those away ... we’re in the game. We were down a touchdown in the fourth quarter. It’s obviously frustrating that we didn’t pull through. But we know that we have eight games left to show what we can do.”
After being unable to lock in on one quarterback through the first three contests, UA coach Jedd Fisch declared after the Oregon game that McCloud would be the starter moving forward — despite the five picks.
McCloud was part of a three-way battle for the starting job in training camp, but he was constantly trying to play catchup. Gunner Cruz and Will Plummer participated in spring practice; McCloud didn’t arrive from South Florida until June.
Despite having considerably more college experience than Cruz or Plummer, McCloud opened the season behind them on the depth chart. But he never questioned his decision to transfer from USF to Arizona.
“I have great faith, and I knew that my time would come eventually,” McCloud said. “I just had to keep working. And I had to make sure that when he did call my name, I was ready to go.”
In the succeeding weeks, McCloud was able to make up ground. He said he’s now “100% comfortable” with Fisch’s offense. A fourth-year sophomore, McCloud is used to learning new systems. He has had four offensive coordinators in as many seasons.
Sitting out the first two games helped make the learning curve more manageable, McCloud said. He stood near Fisch while the offense was on the field and talked to the head coach — who’s also the offense’s designer and play-caller — and the other quarterbacks between series.
“Just understanding the game,” McCloud said. “How Coach calls games and being able to experience that from the sideline, understanding the offense more. To be able to know that it’s not as hard as what people may think. He’s calling the same things he calls in practice.
“That was the gap, I believe — understanding the offense. It’s a lot. It’s a pro-style offense, so you have to understand where your protection’s coming from, your checkdowns. Once I understood all that ... I was ready to go.”
The sideline conversations with Fisch continued against Oregon, but they took on a different tone. Fisch had to be part instructor, part motivator, especially after McCloud’s second interception, a ball he threw into coverage in the back of the end zone.
“I got a little frustrated with myself,” McCloud said. “He was just like, ‘I’m riding with you. I trust you. Just keep playing the game that I know you can play.’
“That helped me a lot. Built my confidence.”
If McCloud lost his composure at any point, it was short-lived. Offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll came away from the Oregon game impressed with McCloud’s “poise and command of the game.”
“He was really clear on the sideline,” Carroll said. “We went through checks and changes, and it didn’t faze him at all.
“Hopefully his short memory will be helpful too. I think he’s ready to make a big comeback from the last game.”
After the fact, it was easy for McCloud to see what he did wrong. On some of the interceptions, he could have thrown the ball away, dumped it to an outlet receiver or run for a few yards.
“Being able to live for the next down,” McCloud said. “Sometimes it’s OK if you get sacked instead of trying to play hero ball. It’s OK to throw the ball away instead of trying to make the big play all the time.”
McCloud should be better prepared against UCLA. He used last week’s bye to better familiarize himself with the playbook and his teammates. He also has been getting the vast majority of the first-team practice reps, which wasn’t the case earlier in the season. Heading into the BYU and San Diego State games, he got none.
“I think that experience will really help him,” Fisch said.
Now it’s up to McCloud to put all those pieces together. He has had time to learn the system. He has gotten more practice reps. He has taken more than 100 snaps in games.
The Oregon game didn’t go exactly as planned. But it’s something McCloud can learn from.
“It happens,” he said. “And I can say that it won’t happen again.”
Down goes Brown
Defensive coordinator Don Brown spoke to the media for the first time since getting knocked down on the sideline during the Oregon game. Unfortunately, it wasn’t an isolated incident.
“Believe it or not, it was two in one week,” Brown said. “The previous week in practice, on Thursday, I got dumped on the back of my head. So I had a couple of interesting days.”
Brown said he’s “still recovering” from the second knockdown, which resulted from a late hit by the Ducks.
Carroll expressed optimism about the health of offensive linemen Jordan Morgan and Donovan Laie. Both have played through lower-leg injuries. “There’s a chance that this as healthy as we’ve been,” Carroll said. Morgan had his highest-graded game against Oregon, per Pro Football Focus.
UCLA safeties Quentin Lake and Kenny Churchwell III are considered questionable because of unspecified injuries that knocked them out of the ASU game. Tight end Mike Martinez and center Sam Marrazzo are out.
The Wildcats want to generate a pass rush against UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, but they must remain disciplined in doing so. Thompson-Robinson rushed for 96 yards last week against Arizona State, the second-highest total of his career. “If you’re involved in the pass rush, don’t be behind the quarterback,” Brown said. “That’s suicide.”
Before this past weekend, Carroll hadn’t gone on the road to recruit since he was a member of Miami’s staff in 2014. He spent the past six seasons with the Seattle Seahawks. “It was different,” Carroll said. “It’s been a minute. But you fall back into the same stuff — airports and rental cars. It’s second nature.”
Contact sports reporter Michael Lev at 573-4148 or email@example.com. On Twitter @michaeljlev